Gamers Take Heart: Cyberball Game Helps Researchers Study Oxytocin Treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorders

I confess I don’t play video games. My friends do, my husband does, but to me they always seemed a colossal waste of time. Time I could spend reading, or writing, or cornering the dust bunnies under the bed and tossing them out to fend for themselves. So when I started reading a paper about Oxtocin promoting social behavior in high-functioning autism spectrum disorders (HF-ASD; 1), I was struck that they used a cyberball game (aka video game) as a way to measure the effects of oxtocin on the social behavior of HF-ASD individuals. 

Oxytocin is a hormone synthesized by the hypothalamus that is involved in the regulation of emotions, although it is best known for its involvement in childbirth and lactation. Recent studies have shown that oxytocin treatment increases the ability of normal, healthy individuals to recognize memorized faces. It also aids in the encoding of social stimuli and increases the time healthy individuals spent looking at important social cues (2).

Not surprisingly, oxytocin has been implicated in autism, and in particular in the social disorders associated with HF-ASD. People with HF-ASD have difficulty understanding social cues and responding to them appropriately. They have normal intellectual and language abilities, but they avoid social interactions including eye contact. Tests of social cognitive skill show that individuals with HF-ASD can’t make fast intuitive judgments in social settings and have difficulty understanding the intentions of others. Children with autism have been shown to have lower plasma oxytocin levels (3). They also fail to show the normal developmental increases in oxytocin in the blood.

In their paper, Andari, et al. used the Cyberball game to measure social interaction. In the game, the researchers could control how likely each cyber player was to throw the ball to the subject, thus creating profiles for the cyber players of good, bad or neutral. When they were treated with a placebo, HF-ASD subject showed little differentiation in which profile they threw the ball to. In contrast, the healthy control subjects threw significantly more balls to the good profile. Following an intranasal dose of oxytocin, the HF-ASD subjects chose more often to throw the ball to the good profile. In fact, the difference between the number of balls the control group and the HF-ASD group threw to the good profile disappeared following oxytocin treatment, while it was significant with placebo treatment.

I know several families who have been touched by Autism Spectrum Disorders, and I can imagine their excitement at the thought of a treatment that might help their loved ones. This paper highlighted the therapeutic potential of oxytocin, but that is a long way from a clinical treatment. There is a lot of work to be done. Still, I say hats off to the video game that is helping researchers measure the therapeutic effects.


  1. Andari E, Duhamel JR, Zalla T, Herbrecht E, Leboyer M, & Sirigu A (2010). Promoting social behavior with oxytocin in high-functioning autism spectrum disorders. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107 (9), 4389-94 PMID: 20160081
  2. Guastella, A.J., Mitchell, P.B. and Dadds, M.R. (2008) Oxytocin increases gaze to the eye region of human faces. Biol. psychiaty 63, 3-5.
  3. Modahl, C. et al. (1998) Plasma oxytocin levels in autistic children.  Biol. psychiaty 43, 270-277.

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Kelly Grooms

Kelly Grooms

Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation
Kelly earned her B.S. in Genetics from Iowa State University in Ames, IA. Prior to coming to Promega, she worked for biotech companies in San Diego and Madison. Kelly lives just outside Madison with her husband, son and daughter. Kelly collects hobbies including jewelry artistry, reading, writing and knitting. A black belt, she enjoys practicing karate with her daughter as well as hiking, biking and camping.

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